Lessons from an unexpected encounter between a Pakistani immigrant and an older white man in America
Many years ago, as I sat next to the iconic lion statues outside the Art Institute of Chicago museum, staring at the waves of people passing by in front of me, I felt alone and mesmerised. I was new in the United States, and had a strange feeling—here, no one knows me and I know no one. People seemed different from my native Pakistan, and not just in looks and language. Their gait, their expressions, their smiles and frowns, everything was fascinating to me.
I wondered who they were, what their homes were like, what would they think of me if they knew me. Should I try talking to more people, would they take an interest in me? I was hesitant and unsure.
It wasn’t my first time out of Pakistan; before moving to US, I’d travelled extensively in Europe and Asia. But I discovered that when you’re actually living in a country, your reactions and expectations change. You don’t look at and admire things like a tourist; you want to understand things more purposefully. You want be part of the social milieu, while cherishing your own cultural heritage.
One day, while grocery shopping, an employee—an older white man—came up to me and started a conversation in Urdu, my native language. He told me how he’d spent many years working in Pakistan. He asked me things about my home town of Karachi as if it was his own. I told him how I liked it here and where I’d traveled in the US.
In that moment, it seemed there were no borders, no barriers. We were just two homies, chatting away excitedly. It felt like a cross-cultural handshake. I felt welcomed.
This can only happen when someone makes that little effort, gives that little knock to open a door and interact with someone even for a fleeting instant. In this chance encounter, he gifted me a pleasant memory, just like someone had done for him in Karachi. Like a chain reaction, the passing along of kindness makes room for everyone in this world, brings people closer and makes us, well, happier.
Kolaches, samosas and burritos
A breathtaking feature of life in the US is that you get to meet people from so many regional, lingual, racial and cultural backgrounds. The friends I’ve made have taught me to cook dolmas and Japanese stews, tasted my Ramadan and Eid treats, recalled their family stories about the Civil Rights movement and Native American customs, gifted me Vietnamese umbrellas and Iranian saffron. We’ve swapped words from our native languages and admired each others’ traditional weddings pictures.
While getting to know people from other cultures, you imperceptibly become a more aware, mature and understanding human—no longer a slave of false, fragile or narrow stereotypes and beliefs.
There are plenty of ways to go about it. You can find common ground with different people based on your interest in sports, movies or music. If you like books, read about the history, literature, political and social issues that matter to a cultural group different from your own. If you like to eat, try new foods at international festivals and ethnic restaurants—no better icebreakers than kolaches, samosas or burritos. As the Sufi poet Rumi said, “Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love. It will not lead you astray.”
Smiles, family histories and home remedies
Over time, I noticed the similarities and differences between my own culture and American customs. For one, where I come from people don’t smile at each other in public but feel free to stare casually. At the doctor’s office or while waiting in line, they’re happy to exchange details of family and medical histories, home remedies and relatives’ addresses. In Texas, where I now live, people smile readily but chat reservedly with respect to their private lives. So I practice the art of making friendly but discreet small talk to strangers and acquaintances.
I remember a visiting American professor from Boston who taught art for a few years in my college in Pakistan. While listening to Eastern mystical songs, he suddenly asked me, “Was it really the poet’s intention to express profound meanings, or are listeners forcing deeper meaning out of common words?” His question took me by surprise. I’d grown up understanding complex meanings behind the poetic words. It made me look at my deep-rooted notions from an outsider’s angle. I was touched by his sincerity in trying to search beyond the obvious aspects of a cultural tradition. I got a chance to re-explore and explain a defining part of my culture to him.
I learned that honest questions open new vistas, and so now I ask respectful and genuine questions whenever I can—and respond with frankness and rich detail when I am asked something. I want people to understand my reality and I want to understand theirs.
As communities, we’ll always come out enriched and empowered by reaching out, respecting and understanding each other. As individuals, every interaction makes a little more space in your heart and mind, room that you never knew you had. Together, we can weave the threads of a bigger culture we all share—the culture of humanity.